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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Racial diversity still lacking in Hollywood's major films

This year was exceptional for the notable amount of critically acclaimed films that often included those composed primarily of actors of color: 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and The Butler.

During the Golden Globe Awards on January 12, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o were nominated for roles in 12 Years and Idris Elba was nominated for his role in Mandela. Neither these actors nor their respective films won any of the awards they were nominated for, except for the Best Picture win for 12 Years. Only three black men have won awards in the Best Leading Actor category in the Golden Globes’ 55 years.

The numbers are troubling still in the prestigious Academy Awards. Only three black men have won awards in the Best Leading Actor category from 1958 to 2013, and only one black woman, Halle Berry in 2001 for her role in Monster’s Ball, has ever won the award for Best Leading Actress.
Despite the praise and success of these films, there is still a major problem in representation of black talent in Hollywood. The main issue is that they are casted for roles that are racially limiting in nature rather than what The Huffington Post’s Senior Editor Kia Makarechi calls “non-racially coded characters.” 12 Years, Fruitvale, Mandela, and The Butler demand black actors to fill in black roles.
This is not just a quirk of this year’s notable films with black actors. Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963,  had his claim to fame through his role as a black itinerant worker in Lilies of the Field.
Sidney Poitier, first African-American to win the Academy award for Best Actor, presents the Cecil B. Demille Award at the 2012 Golden Globes
In 2004 Jamie Foxx won the award for playing Ray Charles in Ray while in 2006 Forest Whitaker won for his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Halle Berry’s role in Monster’s Ball revolved mainly around race relations. Other than Denzel Washington’s win in the category for his role as a LAPD detective in 2001’s Training Day, these are all roles that could have not been played by a white person. When only a few talented actors are rewarded for playing parts that are designed for them based primarily on their race, it becomes obvious that there is a diversity problem in Hollywood.
The case is worse when considering other minorities, as there has been no Latino, Asian American, or Native American winner in any acting category in the past decade. Out of the 120 films that have received a nomination for Best Picture in the past two decades, only 17 were led by nonwhite protagonists. The fact that the Academy itself is 93% white and 76% male further emphasizes not only the lack of diversity as manifested in filmmaking, but also the lack of representation and perspective within the very organization that is charged with the advancement of motion pictures.
At the same time, because of the normalcy associated with black actors in black roles rather than black actors in any roles, their performances and the other prevailing aspects of the films they star in are overshadowed by the color of their skin. USA Today tweeted on November 13, 2013, “#BREAKING: ‘Holiday’ nearly beats “Thor” as race-themed films soar”, which led to an enormous backlash from Twitter users for its implied racism and inability to assess the film on its much more significant themes of relationship and character dynamics. It later changed the headline’s wording from “race-themed” to “racially diverse” which further escalated the situation before finally omitting the descriptor and appending an apology to the main article on their website and revising the article’s angle.
USA Today officially apologized on their webpage in response to the massive amount of negative backlash from their readers
Cultural experiences are undoubtedly important to consider, but they do not make a film in its entirety. To consider a film with more than one person of color in a leading role as a “race film” is narrowing the work as a whole and minimizes its efforts in storytelling.  This is especially important when the film is definitely aiming to tell more about the broader human experience rather than one that is culturally exclusive.
The way that film and other media are marketed to the public affects the way our society perceives what is considered normal or mainstream. As founder and CEO of Film Life Inc. Jeff Friday told CNN news, “Hollywood is an industry about mass consumption and mass acceptance, but the people who pick the best are always a very small, monolithic group, so we don’t have a voice. We should be proud of being nominated, but let’s not have the illusion of inclusion.” Representation of minorities in film in particular is important to acknowledging the diversity of experiences in a genuine and inclusive way. When this is achieved, audiences from all backgrounds can connect with stories of all genres onscreen and create spaces for conversations celebrating film that may include, but are not limited to, race-related themes.